“The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.”
— David Epstein
You know the saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none”. What you (probably) don’t know is that the full phrase goes like this: “Jack of all trades, master of none is often times better than a master of one.” And it’s more true now than ever…
Although new takes on learning are popping up every day, the centuries-old outdated education system is still prevalent — and it doesn’t keep up with reality anymore. Our craft, our jobs, the things we value, the things we own, and many more moving parts are in constant change.
We live in a complex world that demands a multidisciplinary mindset to overcome silos and their inherent blind spots. Not everything is a nail just because we have a hammer in our hands.
We’ve been taught to embrace one skill (ok, a craft in most cases) and do it over and over again. For a long time the “10,000-Hour Rule”, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, was seen as the way to go. Basically, it postulates that if someone practices a skill for a long time (>10,000 hours) they’ll become an expert. The “10,000-Hour Rule” argument is based on K. Anders Ericsson’s research on expertise, but it has been “destroyed” in another study.
In Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein makes a compelling case for generalization and experimentation. He takes us through countless examples where multidisciplinarity was crucial and clarifies why, in a wicked world, relying upon experience from a single domain can be a recipe for disaster.
David also highlights the importance of diversity for top performers. For example, did you know that “Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer?” Even in what David Epstein calls kind skills (ex: sports), focusing on specialization from an early age is far from being mandatory. Just look at the different paths of two of the best sportsmen in the world — Tiger Woods “versus” Roger Federer.
With time, I’ve been leaning more to the generalist side, while holding on to the core areas of my craft. To be honest, that messed with my head last year. Why? Most people I work with or relate to are better than me at something — even at the skills I used to excel in. Then I realized that my current edge is connecting the dots, “teasing others”, feeding off of diversity, giving tough love, etc. — in one word: enabling.
So, do all of us need to be generalists? Is being a generalist better than being a specialist? No to both. The world needs both specialists and generalists; there isn’t right or wrong. Just don’t drink the kool-aid, like I did in the past, about hyperspecialization as the only route to follow.
Another misconception about the topic is that being a specialist or generalist is a binary choice. It’s not. We’re talking about a spectrum and not extreme and “pure” concepts.
As the saying goes, usually the best option is to “know something about everything and everything about something” — take the word everything with a pinch of salt here though.
If all this makes sense to you, you’ll probably struggle to answer one of the most common questions people ask when meeting someone for the first time: what do you do? In the first episode of her podcast Learning Day, my friend Sara Ramos talks about how she handles this. Go find out why she doesn’t like boxes…